August 28, 2019

Leadership in a Digital World: 5 Tips on Managing Borderless Teams


Managing teams across time zones and languages is a complex feat, but now that 70 percent of workers around the world work remotely at least once a week, this mode of operating is quickly becoming the new normal.

There are pros and cons to this development. Employing remote workers allows organizations to hire the best talent no matter where it happens to be located geographically. In addition, research has shown that remote workers are often more productive than their in-office counterparts. On the other hand, as jobs transform and the business landscape grows more complex, it becomes more challenging for leaders to track team activities and motivate employees — regardless of where those teams are located. Remote work can make those tasks even harder.

As head of product at Savings United, I lead the product department, support regional teams in more than 10 countries, and contribute to the IT team. Each function consists of people with expertise and specializations in various different contexts. This diversity of people, skills, and perspectives presents both a great challenge and a great opportunity.

Here are some of the key takeaways I have learned while managing remote teams in a multilingual, multinational business:

1. Be Clear About Expectations

It’s important to set clear expectations for what it means to be a remote worker early on. In my experience, a common and clear understanding of standard availability and working hours is the cornerstone of creating functional relationships between remote workers and the organization. Remote team members should take part in all the same core activities that office-based staff are expected to. For example, if your team’s routine involves a daily call or regular sprint planning, everyone should be available and prepared to contribute.

Not only does setting clear expectations get everyone on the same page, but it also helps remote workers feel more connected to the organization. As many as 70 percent of remote employees often feel left out when it comes to organizational activities. You can avoid this by ensuring that remote workers participate in the same routines as in-office workers.

2. Don’t Be a Stranger

Make time to connect with your team members on a one-to-one basis. Have regular catch-ups with your direct reports and the colleagues with whom you have key relationships. Keeping the lines of communication open is a must, whether it means informal time together or structured, recurring feedback meetings.

Even the smallest gestures can make a big difference in fostering remote worker engagement. I have found simple pleasantries and casual conversations to be key to good working relationships, particularly with colleagues I don’t often see face to face.

Open, effective communication is essential in every business, but even more so when your team members are scattered all over the world. It’s important to communicate clearly so things don’t get misconstrued or lost in translation. Miscommunication leads to wasted time and resources, and a lack of attention to cultural differences can harm team morale and cohesion.

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3. Embrace Agile Ways of Working

Distributed teams often need to cooperate in real time. My advice here is to use frameworks like Scrum and Kanban to help organize your portfolio of work, manage team collaboration, and align team goals.

Agile methodology ensures team members have clarity and transparency around their responsibilities, and it gives leaders oversight of what each person is working on. Another benefit of agile is that individual team members can see how their contributions drive team progress. Additionally, we are able to react faster to internal and external changes, and team members can learn to handle a wider breadth of tasks, which means they are able to be more flexible and less reliant on specific individuals.

4. Promote Team Happiness Through Development

Happiness can have a marked effect on productivity. According to one study, happy employees may be up to 20 percent more productive than unhappy ones. Not only do we work harder when we are happy, but our ability to solve problems and think creatively also improves.

A number of factors can influence how people feel about their work. In particular, employees feel more empowered when they have opportunities to progress, both as individuals and as part of a team working toward a meaningful goal. A big part of your role as a leader is to ensure your team members have those chances to develop and those goals to aim for.

Give your team members the opportunities and time to add new strings to their bows, both formally and informally. In my team’s case, we set personal goals every quarter. Say that a team member wants to learn Photoshop. As a business, we then figure out what that might look like in the employee’s role and find a way to embrace and support their learning.

5. Encourage Self-Organization

Bringing together multiple teams with members from around the world requires a high level of organization and coordination from both team leaders and team members. Rather than trying to impose this organization from the outside, empower team members to take responsibility for their work and the work of their teams.

In my experience, self-organized teams enjoy the autonomy, and as a result, the members are more engaged. As a leader, I gain time and space to focus more fully on strategic issues that will help drive the team and the business forward.

That said, it is important to implement structures to support proper oversight between departments. Collaboration can only happen if teams are accountable to one another in addition to themselves.

Ultimately, being an effective and empowering leader for a remote team rests on a foundation of open communication and clarity. Be transparent when setting expectations, and communicate with teams often. Be clear in setting individual goals and developing a strategic vision of what you want the team to achieve as a whole. Your team will inevitably face challenges, but clarity and communication can help you overcome even the most daunting of obstacles.

Milena Toporek is head of product at Savings United.

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Milena Toporek is head of product at Savings United, a leading partner of premium media companies to connect brands with smart shoppers through high-quality coupon solutions.